His school has already begun turning away prospective PhD students who would otherwise have contributed to multiple lines of scientific inquiry aimed at improving the efficiency and performance of solar cells, their integration into power networks and other renewable energy developments.
UNSW is not alone in scrambling for cash as many institutions battle the financial impact from the coronavirus.
Still, even the $20 million its photovoltaic school received in 2019 for research from ARENA is partly shared with other solar researchers such as at the Australian National University and Monash. And it is a tiny fraction of the $130 billion the Morrison government has pledged to help Australia’s economy weather the pandemic.
Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor said the government recognised “the importance of supporting the development and deployment of clean energy technologies”, adding ARENA had provided $1.58 billion in support for 500 projects.
“ARENA’s funding is guaranteed until 2022 and the government has always said that ARENA’s funding will be addressed in the most appropriate budget context,” Mr Taylor said.
Dr Corkish said while researchers were very grateful for the funding so far, it was vital for the centre’s pedigree and future to be retained.
From the mid-1980s, UNSW’s researchers regularly set world records for how much electricity could be generated by silicon-based photovoltaic cells.
It developed so-called passivated emitter and rear designs that alone have reportedly notched module sales of $50 billion and avoided about 1 per cent of annual global emissions.
Dr Corkish said without such advances the 2015 Paris climate accord might not have happened. World leaders “would have said, ‘it’s terrible but what are we going to do, cripple our economies?’”
“We played a key part in creating the conditions [for Paris] but there seems to be a belief that the job is done, the story is over,” he said.
Research includes treating low quality silicon so it performs better, reducing the pace of cell degradation to extend its life, improving solar and wind forecasting, and boosting waste recycling.
Mark Butler, Labor’s climate spokesman, said “letting ARENA’s resourcing lapse is a devastating self-inflicted wound for Australia’s clean energy future that exposes the Liberals anti-renewable and anti-climate action ideology”.
“Scott Morrison should be looking for a COVID-19 recovery plan which brings forward investment in new renewable projects which would create tens of thousands of new jobs, stimulate regional economies, and deliver cheaper power prices,” Mr Butler said.
A spokeswoman for ARENA said the agency was “not aware that UNSW is intending to reduce their student intake due to funding constraints”.
“An increase in funding of $38 million was executed in 2019 for the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP),” she said. “The additional funds take the total funding allocation to $84 million.”
“ARENA’s future – including an extension of ARENA’s funding – is ultimately a matter for the Australian government,” the spokeswoman said, adding the agency had $92 million remaining to commit to new projects as of the end of March.
Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.